New York City Art Commission
Also known as the Public Design Commission of the City of New York, its present name
The New York City Art Commission was created in 1898, in response to the City Beautiful Movement, to regulate public art and architecture.
The New York City Art Commission reviews permanent works of architecture, landscape architecture, and art proposed on or over City-owned property.1
1898: The New York City Art Commission is created
1901: The New York City Charter was reformed, and a clause was included to allow the New York Art Commission to "veto any design that cost over a million dollars”
1913: The Art Commission composes a list of 50 structures that held historic and architectural merit
2008: Mayor Michael Bloomberg officially changed the name of the Art Commission to the Public Design Commission of the City of New York
The New York City Art Commission was created in response to the City Beautiful Movement after the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The fair established the idea that cities could be beautiful by regulating public art and architecture. John Merven Carrère, a partner in Carrère and Hastings, had a vision to beautify New York City by creating an agency that would approve designs for public art and architecture. In 1896, Carrère proposed this idea to the Fine Arts Federation, which agreed that such an agency was needed.
In 1898, the City Charter Commission drafted a new constitution when the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island were consolidated into one municipality. In order to harness protection for an Art Commission, Carrère encouraged city officials to implement the new agency as part of the City Charter. The Art Commission was to consist of ten pro-bono members: the mayor of New York City; the Presidents of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences; a painter; a sculptor; an architect; and three laymen. Although the Art Commission was chartered in the new constitution, its powers were limited. The agency could only regulate artwork that was "commissioned by the government or donated to the city.”2 In 1901, the City Charter was reformed, and a clause was included to allow the Art Commission to "veto any design that cost over a million dollars.”3
Things changed substantially when Seth Low was elected as mayor of New York City in 1902. Already a member of the Municipal Art Society, Mayor Low allowed the Art Commission to review all designs for public works in the city. In 1913, the Art Commission developed a list of 50 structures that had historic and architectural significance.4 The Art Commission was also responsible for regulating the City's fixtures and streets, including lamp post designs, street signage, water fountains, and fire hydrants.5
In the 1920s, the Art Commission had a reputation for preferring Beaux-Arts style architecture over modern designs. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration and Federal Arts Project were created to put unemployed artists to work. These projects, in turn, influenced the Art Commission's openness to more "progressive" public artworks created by younger artists.6
During WWII, the focus on public art shifted to public architecture due to the economic boom and building projects. Furthermore, the fiscal crisis of the 1970s pervaded over the City's agenda as the concern for public art diminished. Under the Koch administration, the economy was starting to bounce back, which resulted in a resurgence of the Art Commission's concern with public art.7 The Art Commission hired interns to inventory the City's art collection, and by 1979 the City had acquired 5,500 pieces of artwork.8
In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg officially changed the name of the Art Commission to the Public Design Commission of the City of New York. The Commission now consists of 11 members, and now includes a landscape architect.9
In terms of historic preservation, the New York City Art Commission represented the earliest efforts for aesthetic regulation. Since the City chartered the agency, the Commission had the legal means to approve public art and architectural designs before the passage of the Bard Act (1956) and the New York City Landmarks Law (1965). These ideas had been percolating among civic activists including Albert S. Bard and art organizations such as the Municipal Art Society.
One of the Commission’s first preservation-related efforts was in 1913, when the Art Commission composed a list of 50 structures that held historic and architectural merit. The list was created in part to protect structures that were in threat of demolition. Frank Cousins, reputable historian and photographer, was hired by the Art Commission to photograph the structures. Although it is unclear whether or not this list inspired the 1950s list of aesthetically and historically significant sites developed by the Municipal Art Society (MAS), it certainly opened the dialogue of preserving important buildings in New York City.10 Parks Commissioner Francis Gallatin had a vision for developing a commission that would have the responsibility to designate historic resources for protection. In addition, he felt the Art Commission should be granted the power to “veto the designs of buildings” that did not “harmonize” with their historic counterparts.11 In 1923, Gallatin organized a meeting with Mayor Hylan, however, his plans never came to fruition. Nevertheless, his prescient ideas for a landmarks law and a commission planted the seeds for a growing movement seeking to pass legislation to protect historic structures.
The New York City Art Commission was also involved in the fight against Robert Moses’ Brooklyn Battery Bridge. Robert Moses, Parks Commissioner and member of the Planning Commission of New York City, had a tenuous relationship with the Art Commission of New York (ACNY). The commission was initially relieved when he was appointed as Parks Commissioner because he shared many of the aesthetic inclinations as the board. Nonetheless, Moses often grew impatient with the Art Commission's process of review, which he often felt was unnecessary for less significant parks related projects. Tensions between the ACNY and Robert Moses culminated when he announced plans for a new bridge that would connect Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn. The proposal also sought to change the design of Battery Park. Civic activists protested Moses' plans, arguing that the bridge would mar the beautiful views of the city.12 Moreover, they urged ACNY to halt Moses's plans. Since the location of the proposed bridge was at the entry point of Manhattan, it was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. War Department; therefore, the Art Commission held no regulatory power over its construction.13 However, Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring rejected the bridge proposal because the bridge threatened security measures.14
Furthermore, the New York City Art Commission was involved in the fight to preserve Castle Clinton. Spurned by the rejection of the Brooklyn Battery Bridge proposal, Robert Moses launched an attack on Castle Clinton. He claimed that in order to build the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, leading from Brooklyn to the tip of Lower Manhattan, Castle Clinton would have to be demolished. His announcement of the impinging demolition only galvanized preservationists, including George McAneny, who relentlessly fought for its protection. In 1947, Mayor William O’Dwyer requested authorization for the demolition of Castle Clinton from the Board of Estimate. The Art Commission, which had previously taken a back seat to public building regulation, was quick to act in the case of Castle Clinton. The Art Commission argued that in order for the fort to be demolished, it must first have the consent of the Art Commission since it was considered a “work of art.”15 In 1949, the Senate passed a bill that gave Castle Clinton back to the Federal Government. A year later it became a National Monument.16
- Archives and Photograph Collection
Public Design Commission of the City of New York
New York, NY 10007
Tel: (212) 788-3071
- ”About,” NYC Public Design Commission. Article retrieved 26 March 2016
- Gregory F. Gilmartin, Shaping The City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1995), page 22.
- Ibid, page 24.
- Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 34.
- Michele H. Bogart, The Politics of Urban Beauty: New York and Its Art Commission (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), page 61.
- Ibid, page 158.
- David Dunlap, “The Art Commission Gets A Truer Name,” The New York Times, 22 July 2008
- Douglas McGill, “Uncovering New York City’s Art Collection,” The New York Times, 24 September 1987.
- Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), pages 34 and 36 .
- Staff, “A City Beautiful Is Gallatin’s Hope,”The New York Times, 7 January 1923.
- Michele H. Bogart, The Politics of Urban Beauty: New York and Its Art Commission (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), pages 195-196.
- Ibid, pages 195-196.
- Robert Caro, “And When the Last Law Was Down…” The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Random House, 1974).
- Gregory F. Gilmartin, Shaping The City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1995).
- “Aquarium Becomes A U.S. Monument; Action on Castle Clinton at Battery Taken After City Deeds Site to Government…” New York Times, 19 July 1950.